The holy grail of historical fiction is to recreate a real moment in history so that we, secure in our reading chair, surrounded by 20th century comforts, can taste it. Like all searches for a holy grail, it never works perfectly, and usually doesn't work at all, producing second-rate genre fiction that is neither real history nor a well written novel. We can be thankful for exceptions, however, and this is one.
Mallinson is an active duty colonel with the Royal Hussars, and knows whereof he speaks. This is his first published novel, but none of it has a freshman feel. He tells the story through the eyes of Matthew Hervey, cornet and later lieutenant of a cavalry regiment in the Napoleonic wars. We first meet Hervey at the end of the Peninsular Campaign, when the British and their allies have Napoleon on the ropes and he is about to take his short vacation to Elba. The novel takes us from the Peninsula to Ireland, where Hervey is an officer of an army of occupation, and finally, as Napoleon breaks out of exile, to Belgium.
Mallinson presents his hero as competent and brave, but also a real person and something of an antihero. In the novel's opening scene our man takes a French battery and gets arrested on the field of battle for this act of valor.
Mallinson is careful to maintain a sensitivity which some might find unusual in a professional soldier. There is very little blood-and-guts until the battle itself. Hervey finds himself in relationships with young women with whom the usual consummation is impossible. He has a mystical interlude with a French nun, and a flirtatious friendship with an Irish peasant girl. When he finally gets his chance with Miss Right, his diffidence almost sinks his chances. But only almost. For this is a novel where the hero gets the girl and lives through the carnage of the bloodiest European battle of the century, and the British win the day if only by the skin of their teeth. Wellington set the casual, graceful tone of this work when he used a term from the race track to describe what was, after all, perhaps the most important battle in European history: It was a close run thing. John Foster is a reviewer in Columbia, South Carolina.